People forage for memories in the same way birds forage for berries

February 14, 2012

Humans move between 'patches' in their memory using the same strategy as bees flitting between flowers for pollen or birds searching among bushes for berries.

Researchers at the University of Warwick and Indiana University have identified parallels between animals looking for food in the wild and humans searching for items within their – suggesting that people with the best 'memory foraging' strategies are better at recalling items.

Scientists asked people to name as many animals as they could in three minutes and then compared the results with a classic model of optimal foraging in the real world, the marginal value theorem, which predicts how long animals will stay in one patch before jumping to another.

Dr Thomas Hills, associate professor in the psychology department at the University of Warwick, said: "A bird's food tends to be clumped together in a specific patch – for example on a bush laden with berries.

"But when the on a bush are depleted to the point where the bird's energy is best focused on another more fruitful bush, it will move on.

"This kind of behaviour is predicted by the marginal value theorem, for a wide variety of animals.

"Because of the way human attention has evolved, we wondered if humans might use the same strategies to forage in memory. It turns out, they do.

"When faced with a memory task, we focus on specific clusters of information and jump between them like a bird between bushes. For example, when hunting for animals in memory, most people start with a patch of household pets—like dog, cat and hamster.

"But then as this patch becomes depleted, they look elsewhere. They might then alight on another semantically distinct 'patch', for example predatory animals such as lion, tiger and jaguar."

The study shows that people who either stay too long or not long enough in one 'patch' did not recall as many animals as those who better judged the best time to switch between patches.

In other words, who most closely adhered to the marginal value theorem produced more items.

The study Optimal Foraging in Semantic Memory, published in Psychological Review, asked 141 undergraduates (46 men and 95 women) at Indiana University to name as many as they could in three minutes.

They then analysed the responses using a categorisation scheme and also a semantic space model, called BEAGLE, which identifies clusters in the memory landscape based on the way words are related to one another in natural language.

Explore further: Being in the 'no': questions influence what we remember

More information: DOI:10.1037/a0027373

Related Stories

Being in the 'no': questions influence what we remember

September 14, 2011

Imagine that you are sitting in the park, deeply engaged in a conversation with your loved one. A group of teenagers pass by in front of you. The next day you learn that the police are looking for someone to identify them ...

Recommended for you

The birth of politics in children—the case of dominance

September 26, 2016

As they grow up, do children become young Robin Hoods? Depending on their age, they do not allocate resources in the same way between dominant and subordinate individuals. Thus a tendency towards egalitarianism develops and ...

Oxytocin enhances spirituality, new study says

September 21, 2016

Oxytocin has been dubbed the "love hormone" for its role promoting social bonding, altruism and more. Now new research from Duke University suggests the hormone may also support spirituality.

Study reveals a biological link between stress and obesity

September 21, 2016

Metabolic and anxiety-related disorders both pose a significant healthcare burden, and are in the spotlight of contemporary research and therapeutic efforts. Although intuitively we assume that these two phenomena overlap, ...

Men with anxiety are more likely to die of cancer, study says

September 20, 2016

Men over 40 who are plagued with the omnipresent of generalized anxiety disorder are more than twice as likely to die of cancer than are men who do not have the mental affliction, new research finds. But for women who suffer ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.